Sermon - Tenth Sunday After Pentecost (8/18/2019)
Jer. 23:23-29; Ps. 82; Heb. 11:29-12:2; Lk. 12:49-56
This is one of those times when it’s hard to feel the liturgical words that we use in our service. “The gospel – the good news – of the Lord.” “Praise to you, O Christ.” How is it good news that Jesus says he has come not to bring peace, but rather division? And not just any old division, but division within the heart of the family, between people with the closest relationships. Have you ever been divided from the people you were closest to in your life? I have, and I can attest that it’s an awful feeling. It’s not fun to feel at odds from the people you love.
And, I don’t know about you, but I have to say that I’m not enjoying the level of division and tension in our society these days. And now we get to have another election year, and if you thought our last presidential election year was unpleasantly stressful, I don’t think you’re going to like the next one. So I’m trying very hard to understand why it’s good news that Jesus says he has not come to bring peace, but rather division. Because, personally, I was hoping that following Jesus would bring more peace and less division.
On the one hand, I think it’s clear, even in this passage, that Jesus does not want people to be divided. Jesus is just being realistic: the arrival of the Kingdom of God is good news for everyone, but not everyone perceives it that way, especially people who have a lot invested in this unjust and broken world. He personally is on his way to Jerusalem where he fully expects to be rejected and to suffer as a result: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until It Is Finished.” (“It is finished,” of course, being the exact words Jesus spoke on the cross.) And if we are people of faith, if we are people of the Kingdom of God, then we should expect nothing different. Not that suffering or division are good things or things that God wants for us, any more than God wants them for Jesus. Yet God can bring good even out of this division and this suffering.
This week Anderson Cooper, the CNN host, did a remarkable interview with Stephen Colbert, the comedian who hosts the late show on CBS. If you didn’t see it, I’ll put the sermon text on the web site and include a link so you can watch the section I want to talk about – it’s really worth your time. They had been talking about loss; as you may know, Anderson Cooper’s mother was Gloria Vanderbilt, who passed away a few weeks ago. And I learned from the interview something I had not known before, that when Stephen Colbert was 10 years old, his father and two of his brothers were killed in a plane crash.
As they’re talking about this, Anderson Cooper pulls out one of his cue cards and starts reading from something Stephen Colbert had said in another interview about his family tragedy. He had said, “I have learned to love the thing that I wish I had never happened,” and then he mentioned a quote – it comes out later in the interview, the quote is from Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” – the quote is “What punishment of God’s are not gifts?” When Anderson Cooper got to that quote, he paused and almost started to cry, and he was barely able to read it. “You said, ‘What punishments of God’s are not gifts?’ Do you really believe that?”
And Stephen Colbert paused and calmly said, “Yes.” He went on to explain that it is a gift simply to exist, to be alive, and that he’s grateful for the gift of existence – at least most of the time. And he said, you can’t choose which parts of your existence you’re grateful for. There are things in my life, he said, that I wish had never happened, but my experience of suffering has allowed me to connect with other people in their suffering in ways that I could not have done otherwise. So while I wish it had never happened, I can be grateful for what it has taught me.
Anderson Cooper reacts by saying, yes, my mother used to say something like this. She would say, I don’t ask, why did this happen to me? Why should it not happen to me? Sadness and happiness are both part of life, I should expect both. Why should I be exempt?
And then Stephen Colbert says: And in my tradition, that’s the great gift of the sacrifice of Christ. It’s that God does it too. That you’re really not alone. God does it too.
In the second reading today, the preacher of the Sermon to the Hebrews runs through the Faith Hall of Fame, a litany of people whose stories are told in the Bible and who truly lived lives of faith. The preacher makes three points about these heroes of faith.
First, they did amazing and heroic deeds through their faith: they “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight, and received their dead through resurrection.” And second, they also suffered because of their faith, in ways that were equally amazing and heroic: they were tortured, flogged, imprisonment, stoned to death, sawn in two, were destitute, persecuted, lived in caves and holes in the ground. Both of these are things you would expect from Biblical characters.
The third point Hebrews makes, however, is where things really get interesting. “Yet all of these,” Hebrews says, “though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised.” Yes, they were people of great faith, and that is commendable, but they did not receive what was promised. Like Abraham and Sarah in last week’s reading, who died before they saw the multitudes of descendents or the homeland God had promised them, these Biblical heroes of faith also did not receive the fulness of what God wants to give them during their lifetimes.
Why would God do such a thing to them? Well, the preacher says, God wanted to wait so he could give them something better than the promises of old – by which, you would assume, he means Jesus. It is good, as Stephen Colbert says, to know that God does it too, that in Jesus God embraces suffering humanity from the inside and so we are never alone.
But the preacher of Hebrews takes it a step further, a step that I think Stephen Colbert would also agree with. What Hebrews says is: “God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
Us? What do we have to contribute to the deeds and the sufferings of people in Biblical times? I could understand why Hebrews would say that God’s promise to them is not perfected without Jesus, but why can’t it be perfected without us? Like, without “us” gathered here in Epiphany Lutheran Church on the 18th of August in the year of our Lord two thousand and nineteen? Really?
As Stephen Colbert says, suffering in itself is pointless – it is never something you would want, it’s always something you wish had never happened. But if it makes it possible for you to connect more deeply, more compassionately, more humanly, to someone else in their struggles, then there is something to be grateful for. And with faith in Jesus, who Hebrews calls “the pioneer and perfector of our faith,” with faith in the God whose nature is to accept suffering and opposition and division in order to overcome them and bring us to true peace, we are part of what Hebrews calls “a great cloud of witnesses,” people who witness to us, and people to whom we are witnesses. People of faith in every time and place, who have learned compassion for others and even for us, and people for whom we have learned to be compassionate. The family of God is so much larger, so much more inclusive, so much more interconnected, than we can begin to realize.
And so, in the words of Hebrews, “looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame,” “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” For our own sake, and for the sake of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us, who support us in our race and who look to us for support in theirs, so that we may one day live together in peace in the Kingdom of God.